Field of Science


Your Cell Phone Isn't Killing You (Despite What You've Read)

I promise I wasn't looking for another New York Times columnist to argue with. Maureen Dowd just fell right into my lap today* while I was checking the news online. Number one on the Times's "most e-mailed" list right now is: "Are Cells the New Cigarettes?"

I thought, "Ooh, stem cells!" and clicked on the story. There's been some news recently about a woman with kidney disease who died after receiving an experimental stem-cell treatment in Thailand. A group called the International Society for Stem Cell Research is cracking down on clinics that offer unproven stem cell treatments to desperate patients.

Disappointingly, Maureen Dowd didn't mean cells, she meant cell phones. (But I understand the temptation to choose snappy alliteration over clarity.) San Francisco is going to start requiring cell phone retailers to display how much radiation each model emits. There is already a legal limit to how much radiation phones can emit, and you can find the numbers online somewhere, if you're a dedicated Googler. But in San Francisco, the "amount of radio frequency energy seeping into the body and brain" will now be displayed.

Dowd commends the mayor for "caring about whether kids' brains get fried." Personally, I'm against brain frying of any kind. But do cell phones fry your brain? Or, more specifically, give you brain tumors?

The rumor has been out there for a long time, and a lot of time and money has ben put into investigating the question. The National Cancer Institute cites about 30 studies on the subject. The conclusion? "Research studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer." Studies have focused on various types of brain cancer, how often people use their phones, and even what side of their head people talk on, and found no solid evidence of brain frying.

There have been a few studies, though, that claimed to find some connection between cell phone use and cancer. One difficulty of these studies is self reporting: If you ask a person with a terrifying brain cancer, "Say, did you use your cell phone especially often--before you got that tumor in your head?" what do you think they're going to say? Overall, there was no increase in brain cancer in this country between 1987 and 2007.

Cell phone towers, as opposed to the phones themselves, have also been rumored to cause brain frying. But a recent study found they were perfectly safe.

Of course, most of us have been using cell phones for less than 10 years. It's possible that they're causing slow-developing tumors, and in another 10 or 20 years their effects will be obvious. But it's worth asking how they would cause cancer at all. Cell phones emit radio waves, which are non-ionizing radiation. That is, unlike UV rays or X-rays, cell phone waves can't mess up your DNA. I'm no physics expert, but the NCI makes it pretty clear: "There is currently no conclusive evidence that non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones is associated with cancer risk."

The San Francisco mayor is just worried about people's safety. "You see all these kids literally glued to their cell phones," he says.** But with so many actually dangerous things out there, I wish people wouldn't fear-monger about dangers that are speculative. Besides, I have observed my 19-year-old sister using her cell phone in her natural habitat. Though she is capable of sending a hundred text messages in one day, I don't think I've ever seen her talk on the thing.

*Not literally.
**Not literally.

Don't Panic! (a quiz)

Did anyone else in Chicago experience an earthquake tremor and tornado sirens in the same day this week? Maybe this is a good time to review disaster preparedness!

1. In the event of a tornado, which of the following does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOT recommend?
a. Staying in your car
b. Covering yourself with a mattress
c. Sitting in the bathtub
d. Taking the locations of upper-floor pianos and refrigerators into consideration when choosing your safe spot

2. If you're riding the subway and it catches fire, what should you do?
a. Panic
b. Get on the floor (watch out for urine!) to avoid the smoke
c. Pull that red emergency handle above the door, then leap from the train
d. Re-enact Tobais's "Oh my God, they're having a FIRE!" audition from Arrested Development

3. Which of the following is NOT true about invasive Asian carp?
a. One was found downstream of Lake Michigan this week
b. They can weigh 100 pounds and jump 8-10 feet in the air
c. They can break through underwater electric barriers
d. Luckily, they don't reproduce very quickly

4. The tiny earthquake tremor you might have felt on Wednesday came from a 5.0 earthquake in:
a. Juneau, Alaska
b. Toronto, Ontario
c. San Diego, California
d. the Atlantic Ocean

5. This afternoon, children participating in Mayor Daley's "Fishing Chicago" program on the Chicago River could be heard shrieking in terror because:
a. They saw an Asian carp leaping out of the river
b. Someone fell in
c. A guy dressed in a creepy Subway sandwich costume approached them
d. Someone finally caught a fish, and once it came out of the water they all realized it was kind of gross looking

Answers in the comments. Photo: USFWS

Daring to Discuss, Part Two

John Tierney is back, dispelling the dangerous myth that women face bias in science and math fields. And that means I'm back to read his source material and try to wrap my poor female brain around all those statistics. Ouch, math!

If you missed my last foray into Tierneyland, this is the second in his two-part New York Times series about women in science. He's addressing a piece of gender-bias legislation that would create workshops for researchers and other academics to discuss gender equity in academic science and math.

"Let me venture one prediction" about these workshops, Tierney says: "There will be lots of talk about...[a Swedish paper] published in Nature in 1997." This paper, he says, discusses 20 Swedish fellowships awarded in 1994, and is "the fundamental text of the gender-bias movement." I would have guessed, especially after skimming over the online comments on his article, that there would instead be "lots of talk" about people's actual, firsthand experiences with discrimination. At any rate, I agree that it's not very useful to rehash one old and pretty small Swedish study, so let's not.

To contradict that study, Tierney cites several others that, he says, have found that women and men in science receive equal grant funding. One of these was a large study by the RAND corporation that, he says, "concluded that female applicants for research grants from federal agencies in the United States typically got as much money as male applicants." That is what the study found--for two of the three federal agencies it studied (the USDA and NSF). For the third, the National Institutes of Health, it found that women received only 63% of the funding men did. (The authors note that they don't know whether women also requested less funding from the NIH. But for the other two agencies studied, they know that men and women requested equal amounts.)

Tierney cites another large study by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that overall, men and women "enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university." The study also says this:
"The data should not be mistakenly interpreted as indicating that male and female faculty in math, science, and engineering have reached full equality and representation, and we caution against premature complacency."
Male professors earned more money than female professors. Women were more likely to apply for a position when there was a woman on the search committee (maybe an interesting point about the perception of bias, if not bias itself). And at every point along the academic career path, women were lost: fewer women applied for tenure-track jobs than received PhDs, and fewer women reached tenure than were assistant professors. Where are they going? Women seem to be leaving the academic path somewhere along the way--presumably, in many cases, to start families.

Instead of talking about how academia might be unwelcoming to women who want to squeeze in a kid or two between PhD and professorship, Tierney would like to remind us that there is "consistent evidence for biological differences in math aptitude" between men and women. Thanks for the refresher, John! My inferior spatial ability made me forget where on this blog I already dissected that idiotic argument.

Tierney allows that researchers have found "a gender gap that widened after children arrived, with fathers focusing more on personal careers and mothers focusing more on the community and the family." But he immediately dismisses this concern. "After all," he says, "the difficulty of balancing family and career is hardly unique to science, and academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries."

If I paraphrase Tierney's final argument, you'll think I'm oversimplifying to make him sound dumb. So I'll let him tell you himself:
"The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people."
I followed this link, and sure enough it's a psychology paper titled, "Men and Things, Women and People." It's all clear now!

Good news, Tierney says: women don't face any real barriers. If these "theorized barriers" really exist, then how can you explain women's success in the fields we actually prefer (even if we don't know it)--for example, psychology? He ends with the cringe-inducing,

I’d love to see more girls pursuing careers in science (and more women reading science columns), but I wish we’d encourage their individual aspirations instead of obsessing about group disparities.
I'd like to end, though, by looking at one more of those studies about grants that Tierney cited earlier. A Swedish study followed up, 10 years later, on the study that had found gender bias, and concluded that "female applicants were actually rated more favorably than male applicants." Something else I learned about Sweden this week is that they have federally mandated "parental leave" instead of maternity leave, and 85% of dads take time off from their careers to help raise their kids. One parent doesn't have to choose career (or "things") while the other chooses family.

Though the article about Sweden doesn't specifically address academia, it does say that for every month of paternity leave Dad takes, Mom's future earnings go up by 7%. John Tierney thinks that questions about the equality of men and women are just "scare stories," but it's nice to know that for some people, improving women's career opportunities is more than a phantom.

Whalers, Watson, and One Lost Shoe

The Friday quiz returns! This time, the subject is general sciencey news stories of the past week. You can thank me if any of this comes up on "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me" tomorrow.

1. The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission is taking place this month in Morocco. The IWC will decide whether to overturn a whale-hunting ban that's been in place since 1986. Under the current laws, Japan is allowed to kill:
a. zero whales
b. one whale a month
c. enough whales to provide meat for the restaurants that are licensed to sell it
d. 1,000 whales a year for "scientific research"

2. Japan was recently accused of buying votes from other IWC member nations, in hopes of overturning the whaling ban. Which of the following was among the allegations?
a. Japan pledged aid, or gave cash payments, to officials from other countries in exchange for their support
b. Some of the countries that agreed to vote with Japan in favor of whaling are landlocked
c. Officials from other countries were provided with prostitutes on all-expenses-paid trips to Japan
d. Whalers on Japan's "research" boats steal whale meat and sell it for huge profits

3. The world's oldest shoe was discovered in a cave in Armenia! It can best be described as:
a. more of a sock, really
b. an Ugg-like slipper made from sheepskin and wool
c. a sneaker made from a single piece of leather, with leather laces
d. totally disintegrated

4. IBM has built a new artificially intelligent supercomputer named Watson. This fall, Watson will compete against a human expert in:
a. Go
b. Scrabble
c. Texas Hold 'em
d. Jeopardy

5. Remember that YouTube video that was filmed by an octopus who stole a guy's camera and swam away with it? There's a new viral videographer in the ocean; you can see a sample of its work above. The video was made by a:
a. sea turtle
b. whale
c. shark
d. manta ray

Answers and relevant links are in the comments. Photo: YouTube.

Spitting in a Tube, and Other Risky Behaviors

In my office, someone occasionally leaves a copy of the Tribune on the kitchen table for people to peruse throughout the day. One day last month, I glanced at that morning's paper on my way to make a cup of tea. A second later, halfway across the kitchen, I stopped in my tracks and said "Oh no." Seriously, it was like a cartoon. I'm glad no one was watching.

Here's the headline that caused my double-take: "Walgreens to Sell Gene Testing Kits."

For $20 or $30, the paper said, you'd soon be able to go to Walgreens and buy a little tube and an envelope. After spitting in the tube, you could pay another $79 to $249 to find out about your disease risks and other vague-but-valuable-sounding information.

You might think this sounds pretty OK, or you might think it sounds like a disaster. More on that in a moment. Someone at the FDA must have also said "Oh no," because the next day's headline was: "Walgreens Halts Sale of Genetic Test." The FDA has since cracked down on five companies involved in at-home genetic testing, including Pathway, the maker of the over-the-counter test Walgreens was planning on selling. (The other companies offer their products online; some of them are much more expensive.) All of the companies got letters from the FDA last week saying that they must either submit their products for approval, or explain why they aren't medical devices and therefore don't need to be approved.

What kinds of information are these companies actually offering? They don't send you a giant "ATTGCCCCAGTTCA..." printout like in Gattaca. (By the way, those scrolls of paper were totally unrealistic. In 12-point Times New Roman, I can fit about 2400 capital letters on a page. At that rate, a printout of 3 billion base pairs would take up 1.25 million pages. I'll leave it to someone else to figure out how large that scroll of paper would be.) Instead, they test you for certain genetic markers. For example, if you request the "Health" report from the company 23andme, they'll look at about 150 of your genes. Within each gene, they'll check to see which version of a common variation you have: is this position a C or a T? An A or a G? The variants they're testing for have been associated with an increased or decreased risk of some disease or trait. The report you get back will say things like: Your variant of this gene gives you a 50% increased risk of developing this condition, compared to the population as a whole.

So: Pretty OK? Or problematic?

You could certainly get some useful information from having your genes tested. If you find out you're at increased risk for breast cancer, you can make sure to get regular screenings. If you carry a gene for cystic fibrosis, you might decide to have your partner's genes tested, too, before having any children. There's also a lot of non-useful information you'll get: for example, 23andme will tell you about your earwax type (sticky or dry) and your eye color (probably something you've picked up on without help).

You might also receive information you don't want. You could find out that your father is not really your father; or that you're at increased risk for a brain aneurysm, and there's nothing you can do about it.

How accurate are these tests? It's hard to say, without anyone regulating the companies that perform them. You might take a genetic test at three different companies and get three somewhat different results. Recently, 23andme got mixed up and sent 96 customers the wrong data. Even if the company is absolutely certain that they've analyzed your genes accurately, the best they can offer is usually a statistical correlation. They might know that a certain gene variant is correlated with a 20% increase in the risk of a disease, but have no idea what that gene has to do with the disease itself--if anything. Your destiny may be written in your genes, but researchers are still struggling with the decoder ring.

Assuming you get accurate information, how valuable is it? Let's say you're a man, and your testing company tells you that your gene variant increases your odds of bladder cancer by 20%. Do you start Googling bladder cancer symptoms? Do you worry that your frequent urination means you have an advanced tumor, or that you've unfairly passed on a dangerous gene to your kids? Well, the average bladder cancer risk for men is 4%, so yours is now 4.8%. In the population at large, that gene variant is meaningful. But for you personally, maybe it's not.

In other cases, your genes themselves might be insignificant compared to environmental factors, like how much you smoke or eat or drink. For example, these tests will tell you your genetic risk of Type II diabetes, a disease that's 75% determined by environmental factors. If an inactive, obese person finds out she has a genetically low risk for Type II diabetes, and therefore assumes she's safe from it, that test has done her a disservice.

The testing companies argue that information about people's bodies should be available to everyone who wants it, and it's paternalistic to say otherwise. But they're not only offering information; they're also interpreting it, and it might be hard for customers to see the line between one and the other. What seems like information can really be a false impression of security, or of risk, or of control. (How crushing must it be for the "previvor"--the woman who finds out she has a risky gene variant and opts for a preventive double mastectomy or hysterectomy--who later develops heart disease or colon cancer?)

Of course we all want to know more about ourselves. Instead of arguing with human nature, I'll just leave you with one more caveat: At some point in the future, you may be forced to tell insurers about your genetic testing. And while those tiny statistical differences may not be meaningful to you, your health insurance provider is going to love them.

Space Your Face!

I know it's Friday but I'm not writing another BP quiz today. It is just too depressing. You know the story anyway: dying pelicans; BP buying search terms from Google; "an amount equivalent to the Exxon-Valdez disaster could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every 8 to 10 days."

It's a good day for something silly. I'm pretty distracted, anyway, by all the screaming and honking outside my office. It looks like some sort of nuclear ticker-tape device was detonated out there. Was there a big Chicago sports victory or something?

So here's the silliest thing I've seen this week. I don't know if NASA has a new PR person or what, but at a site called "Space Your Face" they're encouraging you to upload your head onto an animated, dancing astronaut. Above, you can see the astronaut my sister created, which has our family dog's head on it.

After you upload your face, the site asks where you'd like to "get down" and offers three extraterrestrial landscapes. Then some music plays and you dance around. I totally recommend trying this--at least, if for no other reason, so someone can confirm that I saw Hobbes do the Soulja Boy right after an Irish jig.

A related, and only slightly less frivolous, outreach effort by NASA is called "Your Face in Space." Since the shuttles are being retired, NASA is offering you a chance to virtually travel on one of the last two shuttle trips ever. When you upload your head shot here, it does not go on a dancing astronaut, but it does go into space with Discovery or Endeavour. So far, more than 115,700 people have participated.

I was planning on ending with a reflection on the retirement of the shuttle fleet, or the end of the moon program, and what it means to kids today who might not be able to dream of going into space the way everyone between my parents' generation and my own did. How many kids fantasize about putting on a spacesuit and being locked in a warehouse for 18 months?

But my internet has slowed to a crawl thanks to (presumably) my office-mates streaming video of the parade instead of looking out the window. And my cell phone abruptly died after expending its battery searching for jammed-up service. So it feels kind of like the apocalypse here. Maybe I should watch the dancing astronaut again. Get down, Hobbes!

Daring to Discuss

Today the New York Times ran an article by John Tierney titled "Daring to Discuss Women in Science." Sounds brave!

The subject of Tierney's article is a piece of legislation just passed by the House called "Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering." According to Tierney, who's dubbed it "Larry's Law," this legislation is mainly a reaction to the controversy over former Harvard president Larry Summers. You may remember his comments in 2005 about women in science and math. He suggested that a lack of female professors in these areas might not be due to biased hiring, but to an innate difference in women's abilities. Larry Summers doesn't work for Harvard anymore. He does work for Barack Obama, though.

Tierney says:
This proposed law, if passed by the Senate, would require the White House science adviser to oversee regular “workshops to enhance gender equity.” At the workshops, to be attended by researchers who receive federal money and by the heads of science and engineering departments at universities, participants would be given before-and-after “attitudinal surveys” and would take part in “interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.”
I agree that "attitudinal surveys" sound a little goofy. But the legislation also calls for, at these workshops, "research presentations" (that's actually right before "interactive discussions" in the quote Tierney chose; I guess he wanted it to sound sillier) and "information on best practices and the value of mentoring undergraduate and graduate women students as well as outreach to girls." Mentoring children doesn't sound so silly to me.

"At the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops," Tierney says (good one, John!), he'd like to discuss "new evidence supporting Dr. Summers's controversial hypothesis."

Here's how Tierney describes Summers's theory:

Yet even if all these social factors were eliminated, he hypothesized, the science faculty composition at an elite school like Harvard might still be skewed by a biological factor: the greater variability observed among men in intelligence test scores and various traits. Men and women might, on average, have equal mathematical ability, but there could still be disproportionately more men with very low or very high scores.
What Summers said, and Tierney repeats, is that assuming men have "greater variability" in intelligence, there will be more outliers who are men. So if you look at the top .01 percent of the population, the super geniuses, most of them will be men. And by extension, I guess, if you are the president of Harvard and you only want to hire super geniuses, it's not your fault if all of them happen to be male.

The "new evidence" that Tierney cites to support Summers's theory is a study done at Duke on SAT scores of seventh graders. (Yes, 13-year-olds.) In the super genius portion of the bell curve--the top .01 percent of kids--there are four times as many boys as girls.

The 4-to-1 ratio was reached in 1991. Yet only a decade earlier, it was 13-to-1. This crazy increase in super genius girls happened, the researchers assume, because of "sociocultural factors." But since the ratio has stayed at 4-to-1 since then, they think this difference is innate: "Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail."

Here's the first obvious problem I have with this: Did I miss some sort of huge breakthrough where we discovered how to measure intelligence, or "cognitive abilities," completely removed from cultural influences? Did we fix the problem where African American students do worse on tests when they have to check a box for their race? Or where women do worse on math tests when men are in the room? Suddenly we can look at middle schoolers' test scores and say that they "clearly show" something about their innate intelligence as adults?

Secondly, I thought we were talking about biases against women in academia. Tierney claims that maybe there is no such bias, and promises to address the question in his next column. In the meantime, why on earth are we talking about possible cognitive differences in one ten-thousandth of the population? What does that have to do with biased hiring or funding? Even if a cognitive difference exists, does that mean we shouldn't bother assessing people based on their actual academic work?

Is it possible that there's an innate cognitive difference between women and men? Sure. I'd bet there are lots of them. We have different genes and different brain structures. But right now there's no way to tease out a cognitive difference from every other difference in how a person has been treated and formed by their family and society since birth. So I don't see the point in talking about it. All it accomplishes is to give a prominent Times writer a platform to describe workshops promoting women in science as "re-education."

If you feel as discouraged as I do, please check out this girl. She's eight, she loves science, and she has a business card with robots drawn on it.

Oil and Water, Part Two

Remember last week, when all the newspapers said "top kill" was working to stop the oil leak, and I believed it? Well, I think we've all learned a lot since then.

BP Quiz (cont'd)

1. If the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history has dampened your desire to "drill baby drill," Sarah Palin has a nickname for you:
a. Eco-Maniac
b. Lefty Lucy
c. Extreme Greenie
d. Joe the Tree Hugger

2. The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, has said all of the following things since the oil leak started. Which one did he apologize for?
a. "The environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest."
b. "I would like my life back."
c. "The oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes."
d. "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean."

3. What difficulty arose when BP sent a robot with a saw made out of diamond into the ocean?
a. The saw got stuck in a pipe
b. The saw broke
c. The robot cut itself with the saw
d. Toxic chemical dispersants got inside the robot and broke it

4. As of June 1, BP's market capitalization (what you get when you multiply the number of shares by the value of each share) had decreased by an amount equal to the entire market capitalization of what other company?
a. Chuck E. Cheese
b. Wegman's
c. KFC
d. McDonald's

5. Fox & Friends Senior Blond Analyst Gretchen Carlson criticized what aspect of the president's latest trip to the Gulf?
a. Hoity-toity-ness
b. Namby-pamby-ism
c. Spiffy shoes
d. Fancy pants

Answers are in the comments. And you can thank Doug, obviously, for explaining market capitalization to me.

Physics Fun-Hundred

I was talking to my middle sister today and remembered how smart she is. She works in a theoretical physics lab at her college. I, on the other hand, don't know squat about physics. I could probably list all the things I know about physics right here.

1. If you are one of the smaller kids in your high school class, and you have a tendency to make little comments that your teacher doesn't necessarily find funny, you might discover one day that you've "volunteered" to lie on a bed of nails. This demonstrates something about surface area, or maybe that your teacher doesn't like you very much.

2. In high school physics, every lab and every word problem is about something falling down. Maybe if they changed that, people would enjoy the class more and not have to make little comments to lessen everyone's misery.

3. Not that I didn't enjoy drawing tiny pictures of stick men standing on top of moving trains and tossing tennis balls.

4. Did you know that the story about Isaac Newton being inspired by a falling apple is (maybe) true? Or at least this guy says he heard the story from Newton back in the 1700s.

5. Kids who work in college physics labs spend a lot of time in sub-basements adjusting lasers. If you work in a biology lab and you spend your days running through the woods sucking up fruit flies with a straw, you can gloat when you see the physics kids at lunch.

6. My sister, though, works in a theoretical physics lab. This means that instead of doing actual experiments, she sits in a room doing math and thinking big thoughts.

7. Her lab's research has something to do with "fractional dimensions." Or maybe it was "fractal dimensions." I'm not sure which sounds more terrifying.

8. Today she told me that a physics paper she was reading declared that "this theory is ghost free." She couldn't explain that, but I'd like to think it means, "For the sake of our model, we'll assume that all of these crazy quantum effects are not the result of a malicious poltergeist messing with us."

9. Of course, when I told my sister that, she pointed out in all seriousness that we'll never know if that's the case.

10. Since E is energy, m is mass, and c is a constant (the speed of light), Einstein's famous equation E = mc^2 means that energy actually has mass. Isn't that weird? You didn't think I knew any real physics, did you?

Photo: Objects in motion. Or, Whirlyball.